Two women are watching each other.
Phoebe Miller isn't sure when the rusty car started showing up in the cul-de-sac she calls home, or why its driver would be spying on her. What could be interesting about an unhappy housewife who drowns her sorrows in ice cream and wine and barely leaves her house?
Only one knows why.
When a new family moves in across the streetthe exuberant Vicki, who just might become the gossipy best friend Phoebe's always wanted, and her handsome college-bound son, Jake, who offers companionship of a different varietyPhoebe finds her dull routine infused with the excitement she's been missing. But with her head turned she's no longer focused on the woman in the car. And she really should be...
An addictive domestic thriller for fans of The Last Mrs. Parrish and The Couple Next Door, The Other Mrs. Miller serves up a delicious brew of dark secrets and stunning plot twists that will keep you captivated until the very last page.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Allison Dickson is the author of several independently published horror and dystopian novels. She has also written nearly two dozen short stories, both independently and as part of anthologies. Dickson lives in Dayton, Ohio, and when not writing, she is typically gaming, blogging, or exploring.
Read an Excerpt
The blue car is there again this morning. It’s parked just down the block, never in the same spot twice, but always within easy view of Phoebe’s peering eyes. The older Ford Focus, with its rusted fenders and a cracked windshield that makes seeing the driver almost impossible, even with powerful binoculars, would go unnoticed almost anywhere else in Chicago. But on a quiet Lake Forest street, where a three-year-old Land Rover seems ancient, it sticks out like a rotting incisor in a set of bleached teeth. The only clue to the driver’s identity is a magnet on the front passenger door that says Executive Courier Services, but she has yet to see any delivery take place.
Phoebe isn’t exactly sure when the car first started showing up, but once she noticed its repeat visits, she began keeping a log like the sort of busybody neighborhood watch captain that would ordinarily annoy her. In the little notebook are three columns: when the car arrives, where it parks, when it leaves. The appearances seemed more sporadic at first, maybe two or three times a week, for an hour at most. But for the last week, the car has been there daily and staying for at least three hours, sometimes as many as five, well beyond any normal break in a workday. If the occupant has exited to so much as stretch their legs, Phoebe hasn’t noticed. She has considered asking the neighbors what they think about this interloper, but in the five years she’s lived in this house, she hasn’t gone out of her way to make friends with any of them.
It’s not that she doesn’t like people. She just . . . well, maybe that isn’t too far from the truth. People are burdensome beasts, always prepared to lump their expectations onto you. This is especially true if your name lends you a little status, however dubious that status may now be.
She’s tried expressing these concerns to her husband, but Wyatt thinks she’s being paranoid, about both the recurring car and what the neighbors probably think of her. He insists it’s just stress, that the media frenzy will pass when someone else either dies or says something stupid approximately three seconds from now. Because he’s a therapist, his smugness when he says these things is thick enough to gag her. The subtext, of course, is that she has far too little to do with her day if parked cars and imagined gossip are the sorts of things that occupy her mind. He may be right, but it still makes her grit her teeth.
Calling the police is an option she’s mulled over a few times, but what exactly would she say? This isn’t a gated community. People can come and go as they please. A lifetime ago, a less reclusive Phoebe wasn’t interested in a walled-off fortress like so many of the other places here, or especially like her father’s oppressive lakefront estate in Glencoe. She was taken by this house’s relative normalcy, how openly the modest-by-comparison Tudor-style home at the end of the lush cul-de-sac presented itself to the world, with only a couple of neighboring houses in decent but not overly intimate proximity. That accessibility is biting her in the ass now with this car in the picture, but then again, she’s received no threats or strange phone calls. All she has is exhaustion-fueled speculation, and not even a description of the driver, who she’s about 90 percent positive is either a woman or a very slight man, based mostly on the petite silhouette. The only other details she can note with any confidence are the light blue shirt and baseball cap, an apparent uniform. Because she’s probably just a flipping delivery driver, she thinks in her husband’s calmly exasperated voice. So no, she won’t call the cops. Not until she has a real reason.
Of course, Phoebe could put all these questions to rest right now. Just step outside, walk up to the car, knock on the window, and kindly ask what they want. But with everything else going on, she can’t handle the thought of being even a little humiliated. What if this really is just some lowly courier who likes to sit there for breaks and catch up on paperwork? Or a friend of one of the neighbors Phoebe has spent years ignoring? She can already hear them gossiping. Oh, her? That’s Phoebe Miller. Haven’t you heard of her? Well, surely you know about her father . . .
Then there’s the worst-case scenario, that this courier could actually be a reporter scoping her out, waiting to catch some unflattering footage of a disheveled heiress at the height of her paranoid desperation. The public would cease to function without its regular dose of schadenfreude, after all. Why shouldn’t she have her time in the limelight?
But she’s also begun to consider a likelier reason for her inaction: watching this car has become a game for her, a blip in her otherwise flat line of a day. The truth of this person is probably so mundane, it would only add to her depression if she learned it, so why bother? Let her enjoy this one odd thing. It won’t last forever. Nothing does.
After making note of today’s appearance, she returns to the kitchen to refill her coffee and focus on other things, like what Wyatt wants for dinner tonight, and whether he’s going to watch the remaining episodes of Game of Thrones with her, or if she should go ahead and knock them out herself. Ah, the glamorous life. He’s currently slurping down a bowl of cereal, and the sound immediately grates on her nerves. Has he always done that, or is she just now starting to notice it after ten years?
She’s discovered several other micro-habits of his lately that make her fantasize about bludgeoning him with an iron skillet like an old-fashioned cartoon wife. For instance, when he pretends he’s about to laugh right after he says something passive-aggressive, which seems to be every other sentence that leaves his mouth these days. Or the way he licks his finger every time he turns a page in a magazine; Phoebe is certain she can now hear the grating of his tongue against the ridges of his fingertips, and she has to leave the room as soon as she sees him going for his Newsweek or Rolling Stone. In a more cliché man move, he has also started leaving his hair in their bathroom sink after he cleans out his electric razor. But of all the ways her husband has found to grind her gears, she’s sure it’s the disgusting racket of his slurping, crunching, and tearing into his every meal that will finally send her over the edge. She recently read about a study linking a sensitivity to eating sounds to a higher IQ. Phoebe is sure she now qualifies for a Mensa membership.
She soothes herself with a simple thought. In just a few minutes, he will be off to work. Blessed silence will soon wrap around her like a fuzzy blanket, at which point she’ll lock all the doors, arm the security system, and return to bed, spreading her arms and legs wide across both sides like a starfish. Sometime around noon, she will get up, put on her bathing suit, and bring a book and a bottle of wine poolside. Two hours before Wyatt comes home from work, she will put on actual clothes and brush her hair, trying to ignore the outgrown roots and the split ends that have cropped up over the months since she last visited a salon. She’ll dab on a little makeup, hoping to hide the deepening lines around her eyes and brighten her increasingly sallow complexion. She will put on clothes that have a bit of extra stretch in them to accommodate her ever-widening rear end.
She can’t recall suddenly letting herself go. It feels like more of a gradual surrender. Even two years ago, she wouldn’t have thought twice about spending hours in the salon, or covering herself in dozens of expensive serums and creams designed to make women think they can roll back the miles on the odometer. She vividly recalls spending two or three hours a day in the gym, while partaking in whatever fad diet promised to keep the dreaded muffin top at bay if she just avoided this One Newly Reviled Ingredient. That pampered cream-puff version of herself hadn’t yet succumbed to several failed fertility treatments. She also hadn’t watched the father she’d spent most of her life fearing, hating, and loving in painfully equal measure die so rapidly of pancreatic cancer that he’d had no time to leave her with any of the closure or apologies he’d surely spent his whole life hoping to gift her.
Now, in the aftermath of Daniel’s death, she more closely resembles an actual cream puff—pale, a bit round, only a whole lot less sweet. That’s mostly thanks to the fertility hormones that wreaked havoc on her system, but the daily ice cream and booze regimen isn’t helping. Some good has come from this transition, however. For instance, she’s rediscovered the grace in being childless, and how it affords limitless opportunities for poolside reading and day drinking. She has also found nirvana in wearing yoga pants with no intention of doing poses, peace in ignoring ingredient lists, calories, and macro counts. Her favorite synonym for serenity is French: cabernet sauvignon.
She also embraces the quiet ease of a shut-in lifestyle, where all incoming calls are sent to the oubliette of an overflowing voicemail box, where her father’s misdeeds are just a headline she scrolls by in search of another mindless quiz that promises to tell her what kind of cheese she is (gouda) or which country she should have been born in (Switzerland, neutrally). Daniel Noble may be the source of the trust fund that affords her this life, but she isn’t responsible for the man himself. She considers the family fortune a well-earned restitution for having to grow up with the bastard.
Wyatt doesn’t seem to have noticed this quiet evolution of his wife, or if he has, he’s choosing to ignore it. Despite knowing she’s given up the fertility treatments, he’s still asking her if she’s ovulating before sex, a question that would hobble any normal person’s libido at the starting line.
After he finishes his breakfast, he rinses his bowl and places it in the dishwasher. At least he still has a few good habits. But he doesn’t pick up his keys. Instead, he comes back to the table. “My first appointment isn’t until ten. Want to sit out back for a bit?”
She hesitates. This is aberrant. Even when he has extra time in the morning, he usually spends it at the office catching up on paperwork. He must want to discuss something, which is a guarantee they’ll end up in a petty argument of some sort. But the faster they get through whatever is on his mind, the sooner she can have her blessed solitude. She nods and follows him outside, where she sits on one of the long couches.
Their covered porch has nicer furniture than most people’s houses, complete with a full kitchen, bar, and integrated stereo system. Propane heaters placed around the perimeter ensure they can use the space late into autumn if they want, but usually she covers everything back here in October. This would have made her sad once, but now she’s looking forward to winter, when Chicago’s famously miserable cold and snow will provide a much more natural barricade to going out into the world.
Wyatt has his briefcase with him, which makes him look more like a trial lawyer than someone who relays platitudes and affirmations to menopausal divorcees and stressed-out bankers who can’t get it up anymore. Upon closer inspection, his shirt looks new and pressed, and she’s never seen that tie before. Phoebe also notices his neatly groomed hair, combed and carefully smoothed with one of the many tubes of product she’s bought him over the years that mostly go unused. His baby-smooth face hints that he shaved with a blade rather than an electric razor. For some reason, he wants to look good this morning, and Phoebe doesn’t like it.
He’s handsome in the classic sense. Strong jaw, dark hair, and eyes with lashes so thick he almost looks like he’s wearing eyeliner. Those eyes attracted her in the very beginning when they locked drunken gazes at a mutual friend’s Super Bowl party back in their Northwestern years. In those days—nearly fifteen years ago now, she shudders to think—good looks were all it took to get her heart pumping for just about any guy. But it was Wyatt’s combination of brains, sense of humor, and taste for mischief that made her come back for a second date, and countless others after that. So long ago now are those days of clandestine sex in public places, crashing parties, and racing his old Mitsubishi Eclipse along Lower Wacker in the middle of the night while passing a small joint between them, that sometimes it’s only those eyes that remind her he’s the same rebellion against all of Daniel Noble’s prerequisites for a son-in-law. A middle-class guy who had enough smarts and ambition to get into a prestigious school like Northwestern, but never got all the way to his PhD.
“I think it’s time for us to consider next steps,” he says, sitting next to her. His tone is hard to read, but there’s the barest quaver in his voice, like he’s nervous. She feels a bit of that in her own gut, too, but it’s time they acknowledge this deep chill between them, which dates back to long before Daniel’s death and the drama that’s followed on its heels.
She thinks immediately of their four failed in vitro attempts, but she knows it goes back even further, to the reason they got married in the first place: an unexpected plus sign in the result window of a drugstore pregnancy test. Heavily under the influence of romance and freshly surging pregnancy hormones, Phoebe considered an abortion for all of thirty seconds before swiping away the idea for something much shinier: a chance at respectability befitting her family name. A handsome husband, a beautiful home in the suburbs, and a brand new baby to tie it all together. They decided on a spontaneous civil ceremony at the Cook County courthouse. It would have horrified her mother had she still been alive, but Daniel seemed happy to avoid the expense, especially given his ambivalent-at-best feelings about the groom. He accepted the news about a coming grandchild with little reaction but did seem to warm a bit when he learned it was going to be a boy.
Unfortunately, the attempt at living the domestic bliss her mother had dreamed of for her never got off the launchpad. Their son, Xavier Thomas Miller, was stillborn at twenty-eight weeks. He has a tiny grave she hasn’t mustered the steam to visit since the day of the short, quiet ceremony that only she and Wyatt attended.
Despite the loss, they went on okay for a few years after that. Wyatt got his counselor’s license and started up his therapy practice. Phoebe dabbled in work with her father’s company. They also did the sorts of things couples untethered by kids and financial stress do: travel, concerts, trying on temporary new hobbies before ultimately discarding them, like Wyatt’s obsession with brewing his own beer, and Phoebe’s more expensive forays into modern art collecting and photography. But as they approached their thirties, the unspoken question of whether they should try again to start a family began to grow louder, and Wyatt finally asked it over carpaccio and cocktails while celebrating their eighth anniversary at Francesca’s, their favorite local Italian haunt. Maybe it was the wine warming her blood or the flicker of candlelight in his eyes, but she felt open enough to at least stop taking her birth control pills and see where nature took them. Eventually, nature failed, and thus came the in vitro and four resulting miscarriages.
Her father falling ill made it easy for her to finally put on the brakes. Not that his palliative care had become her responsibility—he had a team of nurses around the clock—but she was able to at least claim emotional exhaustion and Wyatt acquiesced. Running interference on the baby-making debacle ended up being one of the few kindnesses Daniel ever offered her, even if it was unintentional.
But she has sensed a transition point looming ever since she told Wyatt she was done trying for kids, and this must be it, the moment where they both acknowledge they’ve had a good run but it’s time to get off this merry-go-round altogether. Nearly fifteen years together, ten of them married, is a respectable achievement. Especially in her family.
She sighs. “Okay. How should we go about this?”
He looks a little relieved as he unclasps his briefcase. “I’m glad you’re feeling open-minded. I just have a few papers here.”
Wow. He already has papers? While she’s feeling cooperative, she can’t deny being a little irked over how far ahead he’s planned. Shouldn’t there be a talking phase first?
Her heart stops when she sees the stack of colorful pamphlets he pulls out and places on the table. These aren’t divorce papers, not this glossy array of sheets featuring smiling children against a backdrop of sunshine, rainbows, and words like “hope” and “chance” and “family.” This is about adoption, the ace in the hole for rich people with uncooperative wombs. Wyatt’s demeanor morphs from solemn to giddy while Phoebe’s stomach begins to burn. She was so convinced this door was not only closed, but locked tight. But here he is telling her in very explicit terms that he never got past it and doesn’t intend to. .How could they be so out of sync?
“This is perfect for us, babe. I already spoke with the woman who runs Heart Source, and she can’t wait to meet you. With our backgrounds, we could probably have a newborn by next week.” He notices Phoebe’s lack of expression and keeps going. “Or, you know, we can bypass the whole newborn thing and adopt an older child. Skip the diaper-and-midnight-feeding phase altogether. That sounds like a bonus, doesn’t it?”
Phoebe wants to darken the beaming glare of his smile permanently. “When you say our backgrounds, you mean my background. My name. They would practically sell a kid to someone from the Noble family. Isn’t that what you’re getting at?”
“Honey, these places are all legal and ethical. There would be no selling. But yes, let’s be honest, your name helps. I see no shame in that. We should use whatever works to our advantage.”
“Jesus! Have you not been paying attention to the news? The Noble name is in the trash right now.”
Wyatt eyes her patiently. “That doesn’t matter. The Noble name is more than your father. It’s also you, and whoever the next generation will be. If you think about it, this could actually be a way to take the wind out of that whole nasty business.”
Her anger is near boiling. He isn’t hearing her now, and clearly wasn’t hearing her before, when she told him she couldn’t do this anymore. Maybe she hadn’t been concise enough, which had left him room to believe this was a viable alternative. That there were any alternatives at all. She has to be brutal now. He needs to see there is no life down this path, that she’s already burned it and salted the earth.
“I don’t want this,” she says.
He doesn’t look fazed. It’s as if he anticipated this response during his rehearsal of this conversation, because of course he rehearsed, probably while picking out his pretty new tie. “Look, I know it’s a big step,” he argues. “We’ve been through a lot, over the last few years especially, and I know all this Daniel stuff has thrown you for a loop too. You’re afraid of another heartbreak, but our odds are excellent here. Far better than they were with in vitro. This is a chance for a new start, not only for us but for a child who needs a home too. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this first, but we should have.”
She sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. “Enough with the goddamn sales pitch. I already told you my answer. I do not want this. I couldn’t love one of these children.”
Here come his pitiful lamb’s eyes, which only make her heart stonier, because they’re so condescending. They say he knows her feelings better than she does. Her father looked at her that way almost by default, even when Phoebe would say she wanted chicken for dinner instead of steak. “Of course you can, honey. Bonding is always a process, even for parents and their biological children, but you’ll do great. We’ll do great. We’re in this together.”
It’s hard to maintain eye contact as she prepares to nail her final words home. Despite her anger, she still cares for him enough that she doesn’t want to be cruel for the sake of it. But pain is all that works sometimes. It’s the only sensation that forces humans to focus on what’s right in front of them. She’s about to be that hot grease splatter, the hammer on the thumbnail, the slippery rung on the ladder. “Having kids was always more your dream than mine. I thought I could learn to want it like you did, but it never took, and,,,” Come on, Phoebe, get it out there. “I’m relieved it didn’t. I’m not one of those women who always dreamed of being a mother.”
He’s trying so hard to be stoic, but the color has drained from his face, and he doesn’t appear to be breathing. Nevertheless, she’s glad the truth she’s been nursing in secret all these years, like an abomination no one else could love, is finally out.
“What about Xavier?” he asks. The words are clipped into shards, and they’re the only ones capable of getting through her bubble, because Xavier had been different, someone she’d at least been able to hold, even if it had only been for a few minutes, long enough to say goodbye.
She swallows, tamping down those memories and covering them with a thick layer of stone for good measure. “He’s dead, Wyatt. What else is there to say?”
“I think you’ve said more than enough already.” He haphazardly gathers the pamphlets and stands up. Then he stops and looks at her with a deep frown. “What did you think we were going to talk about when we first came out here?”
She looks at her lap now. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You thought I was going to ask for a divorce, didn’t you?”
She shrugs, her capacity for brutal honesty exhausted. It’s answer enough, anyway.
He walks off without another word. But instead of going for the door to the house, he goes down the steps leading to the pool. After a moment’s contemplation, he throws the sheaf of papers into it.